Surge in corruption complaints in Hong Kong as trust grows in ICAC

Watchdog attributes significant rise in reports to a change in public perception of the body and more publicity rather than a surge in instances of graft

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:10pm

A rise of nearly 20 per cent in corruption complaints last year, not counting those related to district council and village elections, appears to warrant serious reflection in a city with a reputation for a largely clean government and business environment. Possible explanations include a surge in graft in the public or private sectors or both, abuse of a system that makes it easy to lodge complaints, greater community awareness of corrupt conduct and the harm that it does, or greater willingness to complain about it or report it to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Hopefully, the first two options can be largely discounted and the rise attributed to a combination of the other two. This would accord with the view from the ICAC, which attributes the surge to greater public trust in the anti-graft body and more publicity.

To put the rise into perspective, it follows significant falls in complaints in the three previous years – including by 11 per cent in 2014. This covers a period when public confidence and trust in the highest echelons of the government, business and the graft fighter itself was tested by a series of high-profile scandals. It is nearly three years since the ICAC began a criminal investigation into excessive spending of public money by its former boss, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, which remains uncompleted.

READ MORE: Forty years since its creation, how the ICAC cleaned up corruption in Hong Kong

The jailing of a former chief secretary and a property tycoon and other cases involving top officials left the public wondering whether the city had more corruption and whether its cherished reputation was still protected by a robust anti-graft regime. This was reflected by an ICAC survey of public perceptions of corruption, based on 1,500 face-to-face interviews, which revealed that while corruption was expected to worsen last year, willingness to report suspected graft was the lowest since the surveys began in 2011.

We trust the watchdog’s advisory committee on corruption is right to attribute the surge in complaints to a recovery of trust in the ICAC and more publicity encouraging people to report graft. Committee chairman Chow Chung-kong also points out that complaints have ranged from 2,100 to 4,000 a year. The number last year was 2,798, including nearly 1,000 against public bodies and government departments, of which 221 were against police.

We can’t be sure what to make of the surge because there are different ways to interpret it. But it is a reminder that to continue to prosper as a hub of finance and commerce, Hong Kong not only needs to remain clean but has to be seen to be clean.